DCIM DataCenter Blog

Hydrogen-Powered #DataCenters ?

by Jeff Clark


Hydrogen-Powered Data Centers?

Although hydrogen generally doesn’t come up in a discussion of alternative energy sources, it is a topic relevant to cleaner energy use. So, what’s the difference, and what is hydrogen’s potential role in the data center? Apple, for instance—in addition to building a 20 megawatt solar farm—is also planning a large hydrogen fuel cell project at its Maiden, North Carolina, facility. Can hydrogen sate the data center industry’s ever growing power appetite?

Hydrogen: A Storage Medium

To get a good idea of the basic properties of hydrogen, just think of the Hindenburg: the giant German airship (dirigible) that plunged to the Earth in flames in 1937. The airship gained its lift from hydrogen gas: a very light (i.e., not dense), inflammable gas. Although hydrogen is plentiful (think water, hydrocarbons and so on), it is seldom found in its diatomic elemental form (H2). So, unlike coal, for example, hydrogen is not a readily obtainable fuel source. It can, however, be used as a means of storing or transporting energy—and this is its primary use. As a DatacenterDynamics interview with Siemens (“Using hydrogen to store energy”) notes, “Hydrogen is a multi-purpose energy carrier… Also, hydrogen as a storage medium is a concept that has already been tested in several domains.”

Hydrogen is thus in some ways like gasoline: it is simply a chemical that certain types of equipment can convert into energy and various byproducts. But it’s the nature of these byproducts that makes hydrogen appealing.

Clean Energy

Under ideal conditions, the burning of hydrogen (think Hindenburg) produces water and heat as its only products, making its use in internal combustion engines preferable (in this sense, at least) to fossil fuels. But even more useful would be a process that converts hydrogen more directly into energy and water—enter the fuel cell. A fuel cell splits hydrogen into protons and electrons, creating an electrical current. The protons combine with oxygen in a catalytic environment to yield water. What more could a data center ask for? (For a simple animation depicting the operating principles of a fuel cell, see the YouTube video Hydrogen Fuel Cell.)

The fuel cell produces electricity as long as hydrogen fuel is supplied to it. Its characteristics from a physical standpoint are nearly ideal: electricity on demand with virtually no production of carbon compounds or other emissions. Because hydrogen can be stored, it represents energy that can be consumed as needed, not necessarily right away (as in the case of solar or wind power). Sounds great—but as always, there are some caveats.

Getting Your Hands on Hydrogen

As mentioned above, hydrogen does not exist naturally in a manner that makes it readily available as a fuel. Practically speaking, it must be produced from other materials, such as water or fossil fuels. The two main processes are electrolysis of water, whereby an electric current splits water molecules into elemental oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2), and steam reforming of hydrocarbons. In each case, energy input of some kind is required, either in the form of electrical energy to electrolyze water or in the form of stored chemical energy in the form of a hydrocarbon. Electrolysis is one means of storing energy from renewable resources like solar or wind, avoiding entirely the need for mined resources like natural gas or coal. Naturally, the efficiency of these processes varies depending on the particulars of the process, the equipment used and so forth.

Alternative processes for generating hydrogen are under investigation—such as biomass production—but these processes do not yet generate hydrogen practically on large scales. Whatever the generation approach, however, the gas must then be stored for transport or for later use.

Storing Hydrogen—A Slight Problem

Hydrogen is an inflammable gas (again, think Hindenburg), but it is not necessarily more dangerous than, say, gasoline vapors. The main problem with storing hydrogen is that compared with other fuels—such as gasoline—it contains much less energy per unit volume (even though it contains more energy per unit mass). Practical (in terms of size) storage requires that the hydrogen be compressed, preferably into liquid form for maximum density. And herein lies the main difference relative to liquid fossil fuels: the container not only holds an inflammable material, but it is also pressurized, creating its own unique challenges and dangers. Fuel leakage into the atmosphere is more problematic, and some environmentalists even claim that this leakage, were hydrogen used on a large scale, could have harmful repercussions on the environment.

Even in liquid form, hydrogen still lags other fuels in energy stored per unit volume. Thus, when implemented in automobiles, for instance, fuel-cell-powered automobiles lack the range of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. And then there’s the cost of fuel cell technology, which is currently prohibitive. Claims of falling fuel cell prices are dubious, given the unsustainable subsidies from the federal government and some states (like California).

Hydrogen for Data Centers

Apple’s Maiden data center is the highest-profile facility implementing fuel cell technology. According to NewsObserver.com (“Apple plans nation’s biggest private fuel cell energy project at N.C. data center”), Apple will generate hydrogen from natural gas and will employ 24 fuel cell modules. The project is slated for an output of 4.8 megawatts—much less than the data center’s total power consumption, but still a sizable output.

The use of natural gas to generate hydrogen still creates carbon emissions, so this project won’t satisfy everyone (although whether carbon dioxide is as bad as its current politicized reputation would suggest is hardly certain). Nevertheless, like Apple’s large solar farm at the same site, this hydrogen fuel cell project will be a good test of the practicability of hydrogen in the context of data centers.

Hydrogen: Will Most Companies Care?

Jumping into the power generation arena is not something most companies (particularly small and midsize companies) can afford to do—let alone have an interest in doing. So, pending availability of some affordable, prepackaged hydrogen fuel cell system, don’t expect most companies to deploy such a project at their data center sites. Currently, large companies like Apple and Google are among the few dabbling in energy in addition to their primary business. Most companies will, no doubt, prefer to simply plug their data centers into the local utility and let someone else worry about where the energy comes from—these companies wish to focus on their primary business interests.

Conclusion: What Exactly Does Hydrogen Mean for the Data Center?

Hydrogen fuel cells offer some major improvements in controlling emissions, and hydrogen delivers some benefits as a means of storing and transporting energy. But fuel cell technology lacks the economic efficiency of other, traditional power sources, so it has a ways to go before it can attain the status of coal or nuclear, or even smaller-scale sources like solar. Furthermore, the applicability of hydrogen (as such) to data centers is unclear. Power backup seems the most likely present candidate for application of hydrogen and fuel cells. In time, Apple’s project may demonstrate the practicality of electricity via natural gas as another possibility. Until then, however, the industry must wait to see whether this technology matures—and becomes economically feasible.

Photo courtesy of Zero Emission Resource Organisation

Driving Under the Limit: Data Center Practices That Mitigate Power Spikes

 April 30, 2012

Every server in a data center runs on an allotted power cap that is programmed to withstand the peak-hour power consumption level. When an unexpected event causes a power spike, however, data center managers can be faced with serious problems. For example, in the summer of 2011, unusually high temperatures in Texas created havoc in data centers. The increased operation of air conditioning units affected data center servers that were already running close to capacity.

Preparedness for unexpected power events requires the ability to rapidly identify the individual servers at risk of power overload or failure. A variety of proactive energy management best practices can not only provide insights into the power patterns leading up to problematic events, but can offer remedial controls that avoid equipment failures and service disruptions.

Best Practice: Gaining Real-Time Visibility

Dealing with power surges requires a full understanding of your nominal data center power and thermal conditions. Unfortunately, many facilities and IT teams have only minimal monitoring in place, often focusing solely on return air temperature at the air-conditioning units.

The first step toward efficient energy management is to take advantage of all the power and thermal data provided by today’s hardware. This includes real-time server inlet temperatures and power consumption data from rack servers, blade servers, and the power-distribution units (PDUs) and uninterrupted power supplies (UPSs) related to those servers. Data center energy monitoring solutions are available for aggregating this hardware data and for providing views of conditions at the individual server or rack level or for user-defined groups of devices.

Unlike predictive models that are based on static data sets, real-time energy monitoring solutions can uncover hot spots and computer-area air handler (CRAH) failures early, when proactive actions can be taken.

By aggregating server inlet temperatures, an energy monitoring solution can help data center managers create real-time thermal maps of the data center. The solutions can also feed data into logs to be used for trending analysis as well as in-depth airflow studies for improving thermal profiles and for avoiding over- or undercooling. With adequate granularity and accuracy, an energy monitoring solution makes it possible to fine-tune power and cooling systems, instead of necessitating designs to accommodate the worst-case or spike conditions.

Best Practice: Shifting From Reactive to Proactive Energy Management

Accurate, real-time power and thermal usage data also makes it possible to set thresholds and alerts, and it introduce controls that enforce policies for optimized service and efficiencies. Real-time server data provides immediate feedback about power and thermal conditions that can affect server performance and ultimately end-user services.

Proactively identifying hot spots before they reach critical levels allows data center managers to take preventative actions and also creates a foundation for the following:

  • Managing and billing for services based on actual energy use
  • Automating actions relating to power management in order to minimize the impact on IT or facilities teams
  • Integrating data center energy management with other data center and facilities management consoles.

Best Practice: Non-Invasive Monitoring

To avoid affecting the servers and end-user services, data center managers should look for energy management solutions that support agentless operation. Advanced solutions facilitate integration, with full support for Web Services Description Language (WSDL) APIs, and they can coexist with other applications on the designated host server or virtual machine.

Today’s regulated data centers also require that an energy management solution offer APIs designed for secure communications with managed nodes.

Best Practice: Holistic Energy Optimization

Real-time monitoring provides a solid foundation for energy controls, and state-of-the-art energy management systems provide enable dynamic adjustment of the internal power states of data center servers. The control functions support the optimal balance of server performance and power—and keep power under the cap to avoid spikes that would otherwise exceed equipment limits or energy budgets.

Intelligent aggregation of data center power and thermal data can be used to drive optimal power management policies across servers and storage area networks. In real-world use cases, intelligent energy management solutions are producing 20–40 percent reductions in energy waste.

These increases in efficiency ameliorate the conditions that may lead to power spikes, and they also enable other high-value benefits including prolonged business continuity (by up to 25 percent) when a power outage occurs. Power can also be allocated on a priority basis during an outage, giving maximum protection to business-critical services.

Intelligent power management for servers can also dramatically increase rack density without exceeding existing rack-level power caps. Some companies are also using intelligent energy management approaches to introduce power-based metering and energy cost charge-backs to motivate conservation and more fairly assign costs to organizational units.

Best Practice: Decreasing Data Center Power Without Affecting Performance

A crude energy management solution might mitigate power surges by simply capping the power consumption of individual servers or groups of servers. Because performance is directly tied to power, an intelligent energy management solution dynamically balances power and performance in accordance with the priorities set by the particular business.

The features required for fine-tuning power in relation to server performance include real-time monitoring of actual power consumption and the ability to maintain maximum performance by dynamically adjusting the processor operating frequencies. This requires a tightly integrated solution that can interact with the server operating system or hypervisor using threshold alerts.

Field tests of state-of-the-art energy management solutions have proven the efficacy of an intelligent approach for lowering server power consumption by as much as 20 percent without reducing performance. At BMW Group,[1]for example, a proof-of-concept exercise determined that an energy management solution could lower consumption by 18 percent and increase server efficiency by approximately 19 percent.

Similarly, by adjusting the performance levels, data center managers can more dramatically lower power to mitigate periods of power surges or to adjust server allocations on the basis of workloads and priorities.

Conclusions

Today, the motivations for avoiding power spikes include improving the reliability of data center services and curbing runaway energy costs. In the future, energy management will likely become more critical with the consumerization of IT, cloud computing and other trends that put increased service—and, correspondingly, energy—demands on the data center.

Bottom line, intelligent energy management is a critical first step to gaining control of the fastest-increasing operating cost for the data center. Plus, it puts a data center on a transition path towards more comprehensive IT asset management. Besides avoiding power spikes, energy management solutions provide in-depth knowledge for data center “right-sizing” and accurate equipment scheduling to meet workload demands.

Power data can also contribute to more-efficient cooling and air-flow designs and to space analysis for site expansion studies. Power is at the heart of optimized resource balancing in the data center; as such, the intelligent monitoring and management of power typically yields significant ROI for best-in-class energy management technology.

Data Center Executives Must Address Many Issues in 2012

Analyst(s): Mike Chuba

VIEW SUMMARY

Seemingly insatiable demand for new workloads and services at a time when most budgets are still constrained is the challenge of most data center executives. We look at the specific areas they identified going into 2012.

Overview

Data center executives are caught in an awkward phase of the slow economic recovery, as they try to support new initiatives from the business without a commensurate increase in their budgets. Many will need to improve the efficiency of their workloads and infrastructure to free up money to support these emerging initiatives.

Key Findings

  • Data center budgets are not growing commensurate with demand.
  • Expect an 800% growth in data over the next five years, with 80% of it being unstructured.
  • Tablets will augment desktop and laptop computers, not replace them.
  • Data centers can consume 100 times more energy than the offices they support.
  • The cost of power is on par with the cost of the equipment.

Recommendations

  • It is not the IT organization’s job to arrest the creation or proliferation of data. Rather, data center managers need to focus on storage utilization and management to contain growth and minimize floor space, while improving compliance and business continuity efforts.
  • Focus short term on cooling, airflow and equipment placement to optimize data center space, while developing a long-term data center design strategy that maximizes flexibility, scalability and efficiency.
  • Put in place security, data storage and usage guidelines for tablets and other emerging form factors in the short term, while deciding on your long-term objectives for support.
  • Use a business impact analysis to determine when, where and why to adopt cloud computing.

What You Need to Know

New workloads that are key to enterprise growth, latent demand for existing workloads as the general economy recovers, increased regulatory demands and the explosion in data growth all pose challenges for data center executives at a time when the budget is not growing commensurate with demand. Storage growth continues unabated. It is not unusual to hear sustained growth rates of 40% or more per year. To fund this growth, most organizations will have to reallocate their budgets from other legacy investment buckets. At the same time, they must focus on storage optimization to manage demand, availability and efficiency.

Analysis

"Nothing endures but change" is a quote attributed to Heraclitus, who lived over 2,500 years ago. However, his words seem applicable to the data center executive today. Pervasive mobility, a business environment demanding access to anything, anytime, anywhere and the rise of alternative delivery models, such as cloud computing, have placed new pressures on the infrastructure and operations (I&O) organization for support and speed. At the same time, a fitful economic environment has not loosened the budget purse strings sufficiently to fund all the new initiatives that many I&O organizations have identified.

This challenge of supporting today’s accelerated pace of change, and delivering the efficiency, agility and quality of services their business needs to succeed was top of mind for the more than 2,600 data center professionals gathered in Las Vegas on 5 December to 8 December 2011 for the annual Gartner U.S. Data Center Conference. It was a record turnout for this annual event, now in its 30th year. Our conference theme, “Heightened Risk, Unbounded Opportunities, Managing Complexity in the Data Center,” spoke to the difficult task our attendees face while addressing the new realities and merging business opportunities at a time when the economic outlook is still uncertain. The data center is being reshaped, as the transformation of IT into a service business has begun.

Our agenda reflected the complex, interrelated challenges confronting attendees. Attendance was particularly strong for the cloud computing and data center track sessions, followed by the storage, virtualization and IT operations track. The most popular analyst-user roundtables focused on these topics, and analysts in these spaces were in high demand for one-on-one meetings. We believe that the best-attended sessions and the results of the surveys conducted at the conference represent a reasonable benchmark for the kinds of issues that organizations will be dealing with in 2012.

We added a new track this year focused on the impact of mobility on I&O. The rapid proliferation of smart devices, such as tablets and smartphones, is driving dramatic changes in business and consumer applications and positively impacting bottom-line results. Yet, I&O plays a critical role in supporting these applications rooted in real-time access to corporate data anytime and anywhere and in any context, while still providing traditional support to the existing portfolio of applications and devices. As the next billion devices wanting access to corporate infrastructure are deployed, I&O executives have an opportunity to exhibit leadership and innovation — from contributing to establishing corporate standards, to anticipating the impact on capacity planning, to minimizing risk.

Electronic interactive polling is a significant feature of the conference, allowing attendees to get instantaneous feedback on what their peers are doing. The welcome address posed a couple of questions that set the tone for the conference. Attendees were first asked how their 2012 I&O budgets compared with their previous years’ budgets (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Budget Change in Coming Year vs. Current Year Spending
Figure 1. Budget Change in Coming Year vs. Current Year Spending

Source: Gartner (January 2012)

Comparing year-over-year data, we find almost identical numbers reporting budgetary growth (42%) and reduced budgets (26% vs. 25%). The most recent results reflect a gradual, but still challenging, economic climate. While hardly robust, it is a marked improvement from the somber mood that most end-user organizations were in at the end of 2008 and entering 2009. Subsequent track sessions that focused on cost optimization strategies and best practices were universally well attended throughout the week.

Now, modest budget changes may not be enough to sustain current modes of IT operations, let alone support emerging business initiatives. Organizations need to continue to look closely at improving efficiencies and pruning legacy applications that are on the back side of the cost-benefit equation, to free up the budget and lay the groundwork to support emerging workloads/applications.

The second issue we raised in the opening session was for attendees to identify the most significant data center challenge they will face in 2012, compared with previous years (see Figure 2; note that the voting options changed from year to year).

Figure 2. Most Significant Data Center Challenge in Coming Year (% of Respondents)
Figure 2. Most Significant Data Center Challenge in Coming Year (% of Respondents)

Source: Gartner (January 2012)

What was interesting was the more balanced distribution across the options. For those who have the charter to manage the storage environment, managing storage growth is an extremely challenging issue.

Top Five Challenges

NO. 1: DATA GROWTH

Data growth continues unabated, leaving IT organizations struggling to deal with how to fund the necessary storage capacity, how to manage these devices if they can afford them, and how they can archive and back up this data. Managing and storing massive volumes of complex data to support real-time analytics is increasingly becoming a requirement for many organizations, driving the need for not just capacity, but also performance. New technologies, architectures and deployment models can enable significant changes in storage infrastructure and management best practices now and in coming years, and assist in addressing these issues. We believe that it is not the job of IT to arrest the creation or proliferation of data. Rather, IT should focus on storage utilization and management to contain growth and minimize floor space, while improving compliance and business continuity efforts.

Tactically prioritize a focus on deleting data that has outlived its usefulness, and exploit technologies that allow for the reduction of redundant data.

NO. 2: DATA CENTER SPACE, POWER AND/OR COOLING

It is not surprising that data center space, power and/or cooling was identified as the second biggest challenge by our attendees. Data centers can consume 100 times more energy than the offices they support, which draws more budgetary attention in uncertain times. During the past five years, the power demands of equipment have grown significantly, imposing enormous pressures on the capacity of data centers that were built five or more years ago. Data center managers are grappling with cost, technology, environmental, people and location issues, and are constantly looking for ways to deliver a highly available, secure, flexible server infrastructure as the foundation for the business’s mission-critical applications. On top of this is the building pressure to create a green environment. Our keynote interview with Frank Frankovsky, director of hardware design and supply chain at Facebook, drew considerable interest because of some of the novel approaches that company was taking to satisfy its rather unique computing requirements.

We recommend that data center executives focus short term on cooling, airflow and equipment placement to optimize their data center space, while developing a long-term data center design strategy that maximizes flexibility, scalability and efficiency. We believe that the decline in priority shown in the survey results reflects the fact that organizations have been focusing on improved efficiency of their data centers. Changes are being implemented and results are being achieved.

NO. 3: PRIVATE/PUBLIC CLOUD STRATEGY

Developing a private/public cloud strategy was the third most popular choice as the top priority, and mirrors the results we have seen in Gartner’s separate surveys regarding the top technology priorities of CIOs. With many organizations well on their way to virtualized infrastructures, many are now either actively moving toward, or being pressured to move toward, cloud-based environments. Whether it is public, private or some hybrid version of cloud, attendees’ questions focused on where do you go, how do you get there, and how fast should you move toward cloud computing.

We recommend that organizations develop a business impact analysis to determine when, where and why to adopt cloud computing. Ascertain where migrating or enhancing applications can deliver value, and look for the innovative applications that could benefit from unique cloud capabilities.

NO. 4 AND NO. 5: BUSINESS NEEDS

"Modernizing of our legacy applications" was fourth as the greatest challenge, and "Identifying and translating business requirements" was fifth and, in many ways, both relate to similar concerns. Meeting business priorities; aligning with shifts in the business; and bringing much-needed agility to legacy applications that might require dramatic shifts in architectures, processes and skill sets were common concerns among Data Center Conference attendees, in general.

We believe virtualization’s decline as a top challenge reflects the comfort level that attendees have in the context of x86 server virtualization, and most of this conference’s attendees are well down that path — primarily with VMware, but increasingly with other vendors as well. Our clients see the private cloud as an extension of their virtualization efforts; thus, interest in virtualization isn’t waning, but is evolving to private cloud computing. Now is a good time to evaluate your virtualization “health” — processes, management standards and automation readiness. For many organizations, it is an appropriate time to benchmark their current virtualization approach against competitors and alternate providers, and broaden their virtualization initiatives beyond just the servers and across the portfolio — desktop, storage, applications, etc.

This year promises to be one of further market disruption and rapid evolution. Vendor strategies will be challenged and new paradigms will continue to emerge. To stay ahead of the industry curve, plan to join your peers at the 2012 U.S. Data Center Conference on 3 December to 6 December in Las Vegas.

DCIM: From fragmentation to convergence http://bit.ly/J5AJsd dcim datacenter datacentre cloud energy @UptimeInstitute

Lockheed Martin to Implement Energy Efficient Data Center Consolidation for U.S. Department of Energy http://prn.to/n8k4BN